Are you wondering what to eat in Cambodia? Just like any other major cities in Southeast Asia, Cambodia offer you the options to eat in restaurants or enjoy street food made to order fresh on street stalls. Every afternoon Cambodian students sit down to enjoy some of their country’s most delicious dishes: its street food. But for expats this is one of the least savored facets of Cambodia’s generally under-appreciated cuisine.
Many expats believe that the Kingdom’s roadside delicacies consist of little more more than deep-fried tarantulas and stir-fried crickets. Concerns about hygiene also keep some foreigners from indulging.
But the best street food isn’t about bugs–either the edible or intestinal kind–and it’s too good to miss. You just need to choose wisely. The safest street foods are those that are cooked in front of you and served hot, which kills off bacteria. And despite what you may have heard, the ice in Cambodia is generally safe to consume. “Street food has two advantages over food cooked in restaurants: transparency and immediacy. When you eat on the street nothing is hidden; you can judge whether or not the person handling your food, the surface on which it’s prepped and the plate on which it will be served is clean,” said food journalist Robyn Eckhardt, who has written extensively about street food in Asia and Turkey for international publications. “And because the time from stall to table is just seconds, you can be confident that your food hasn’t languished long enough to collect the odd bacteria.”
Here are some of the tastiest dishes that you’ll find on street stalls or restaurants of Cambodia.
Nompang is a trendy little fast-food outlet that’s taken the humble nompang Cambodian sandwich – normally dished out from handcarts – upmarket. Crusty baguette rolls packed with plenty of fresh salads and coriander, they come in omelette, black pepper chicken, roast pork (our favourite), lunchmeat and meatball varieties ranging in price from $1.50 to $2. Perfect as a big snack, two are enough to satisfy even the strongest hunger pangs.
Pork and Rice
Pork and rice is arguable Cambodia’s national dish and everyone has their own favourite place – but usually it’s got more to do with proximity to work or home than anything else. Our favourite, on Street 9 between Phsar Kabko and Sihanouk Boulevard, just happens to be pretty conveniently sited to the Post offices. The marinated pork is delicious and you get a slice of omelette, pickled veggies and a bowl of broth all for $1.
Nom Ku Chhay
For greasy, fried goodness, check out the nom ku chhay (fried rice balls with chives and green onion) at this Street 109 stand. They are fried in a metal pan by a friendly old lady with two gold teeth. 1,000 riel a ball.
Bay Kor Dot
It is a rare thing to eat out of a cow-shaped hot plate, but at this street-side dive it is the standard serving method. The bay kor dot is fantastic, slices of beef delivered sizzling with onions, chives and a freshly cracked egg, served with rice and a mug of iced tea. It lends itself to a quick feast, but make sure to scrape up the umami-flavoured juice and crispy egg bits left in the cast-iron cow before you pay the bill.
Fried Noodles/Mi Cha
Variations of fried noodles abound in Cambodia, but whether they’re made with short, thick rice noodles that resemble worms, soft yellow egg noodles or packaged deep-fried instant ramen noodles, mi char is one of the simplest and most satisfying afternoon snacks. While sellers have many different variations, beef and pork stir-fried with tender greens are the most common. For an added treat, ask for a fried egg on top.
Noodle Soup/Kuy Teav
One of the most popular breakfasts in town, kuy teav is a noodle soup made from pork or beef bones and rice vermicelli and topped with fried shallots, green onions and bean sprouts. Fish balls and pork are usually added, although you’ll sometimes find rare-beef kuy teav as well. But don’t dare call it pho! Many Cambodians believe that the dish originated in Kampuchea Krom–the area of Southern Vietnam that was once part of the Khmer Empire–and that the famous Vietnamese soup came second. A delicious Phnom Penh speciality version of the soup, kuy teav Phnom Penh, featuring blood, liver, intestines and tongue, is not for the faint of heart (or squeamish expats).
Iced coffee with milk
Perhaps the easiest introduction to street food is its beverages. The thoroughfares of Phnom Penh are lined with coffee shops selling kar-fe toek doh koh toek gok, or iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk. If you’re like me, knowing that the beans are roasted in lard makes the sweet, strong coffee taste that much better. Some choose to have it without the condensed milk, but they underestimate the mental clarity aroused by the tingling of dental cavities caused by the drink’s unabashed treacliness.